“I think the forest serves the purpose for everything – watershed, jobs, wildlife and paper.” – Nickasch
Leo Nickasch was known as “Mr. Trees” for his tireless efforts to promote tree planting. But he might also have been known as “Mr. Environmental Education,” “Mr. Wise Resource Use” or “Mr. Conservation.” He was all of that and more.
Nickasch grew up in the Neenah and Appleton areas. He served with the Army Air Corps in the northern Pacific during World War II. He came back home to Neenah after the war and resumed working for the Kimberly-Clark Corporation as a maintenance mechanic.
He undertook the important work of being a conservation leader in the 1970s. His union, Local 482 of the United Paperworkers International, appointed him a representative on the state AFL-CIO Conservation Committee. Locally, he had formed a committee to plan Arbor Day activities for Neenah-Menasha schools in 1971. Kimberly-Clark aided the effort by donating seedlings.
School children coined the “Mr. Trees” moniker when he arrived at one of the local schools to promote tree planting. He did a lot of that in his lifetime.
Nickasch used tree planting as a means to promote the bigger conservation picture. Nancy Day, a Neenah-Menasha Arbor Day Committee member, put it this way in a 1992 magazine story: “He wanted to empower youth to protect the environment and show that tree planting was just one simple way kids could take concrete steps to make their world better.”
Leo put it in his own words when asked to comment about environmental education for elementary and middle school students. “That’s the ideal time to get ’em. Once we get them…they’re good for the rest of their lives.”
He pushed for changes in state law to address environmental issues, supported environmental education centers for the young and advocated for making public lands readily available to the people. “I don’t believe anyone needs recreation areas more than the working class,” he said in a newspaper interview.
His long list of admirers includes state politicians, conservation professionals and union colleagues. Bob Ellingson, a retired DNR employee who worked with Nickasch for 20-plus years, put it this way: “He’s not afraid to tackle anything, no matter what the issue is…He’s done far more as a volunteer and interested citizen than any professional has.”
Leo Nickasch is a shining example of a citizen conservationist who cared enough to make a difference.
- Got involved in conservation work through his paper mill union
- Promoted tree planting by elementary school students
- Led efforts for state law providing seedlings to fourth-grade students for planting
- Promoted environmental education for Wisconsin school children
(Publication of this fact sheet made possible with assistance from Krause Publications, Iola, Wisconsin.)